18 March, 2018
Timber! How the mighty fell and rose up again
Coastal redwoods can live 2000 years and can reach up to 116 in height.
When I look around this forest," said ranger Jim Wheeler, "it has a tendency to give me perspective in life, to help me realise I'm just a very small part of a much bigger world."
The forest, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, is 515 kilometres north of San Francisco, and the perspective comes from the coastal redwood, the world's tallest tree.
Coastal redwoods can live 2000 years, and reach 116 metres in height, but only in a narrow strip along the coast, where sea fog gives them the moisture they need. Redwood branches cluster at their crown, so the lower layers of the forest are open, like a green circus tent held up by giant columns of wood. Jim had a more poetic metaphor.
"It's like a cathedral," he said. "The way the light comes through the trees, and the freshness of the air... It's just an incredibly beautiful place."
Redwoods produce a natural insecticide, giving the forest a lovely tannic fragrance. And when an old tree falls, new saplings spring from the trunk, creating "redwood nurseries" in straight lines. They race for the sunlight, reaching the forest canopy within a hundred years.
"There's nothing special about the young wood," explained Jim. "But once they get to around 150 years old, the grain tightens up, squeezing out knots. The redwood becomes hard, straight and easy to work, making it perfect for construction."
I counted myself lucky to be able to see and walk among these amazing trees, such a tempting target to timber companies. Indeed, the threat to them was already so acute this time a century ago that decisive action was taken to save them.
By March 1918, local timber concerns were clear-cutting forests, milling the wood on the coast and sending it south by ship. Concerned by how quickly the forests were disappearing, William Kent, a congressman, and Stephen T Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, helped found the Save the Redwoods League. The league used private money to buy land, to stop it being logged, and created state parks like Prairie Creek. In 1968, Congress added 20,000 acres of national park to what the league had preserved.
"In total," said Jim, "about five per cent of the old-growth coastal redwoods were protected."
Prairie Creek today has 120km of trails, including the 16km James Irvine Trail. This track starts at the visitors' centre car park, and climbs over a ridge, before descending to Gold Bluffs Beach on the Pacific Ocean.
The redwood trees once seriously threatened by loggers are standing taller than ever.
In a meadow near the turnaround point, a male elk sat basking in the sun, and as we walked through the forest, it felt as if the trees were telling us stories: a knotty burl showed where a black bear damaged the trunk to get at the sap beneath; a ring of trees marked where a tree fell and saplings sprouted.
"The burls are bud-tissue," explained Jim. "They appear all over the trunk and roots, reproducing asexually to repair damage. They can even grow an entirely new tree if the main trunk dies." The oldest redwoods are so large that it takes 10 people at full stretch to wrap their arms around a trunk, and information boards invite you to touch the rough bark and compare it to the moss-covered trunks of Douglas firs.
There was never any logging in Prairie Creek, so there is no soil erosion: the water in the streams runs unusually clear and the streambeds are gravel, rather than mud.
Further south in Big Sur, where the forests were completely cleared, storms in 2017 led to mudslides that wiped out the highway. It will take two years to reopen.
"The timber industry was bad for the land, but great for the economy," said Richard Stenger, of Eureka-Humboldt visitor centre. "Gold prospectors established the town of Eureka on Humboldt Bay, but when it proved hard to extract gold commercially, they turned to the redwoods." Eureka grew rich on the "red gold", with vast mansions springing up in the town. Logging teams trekked into the hills and railways snaked down to the coast, carrying logs to be milled and loaded on to ships.
The biggest mill was at Samoa, with dockyards over a mile in length. It had its own post office, rail workshops, shipyards and houses, all owned by the timber company. The sawmill closed in the Eighties, but the Samoa Cookhouse still gives a taste of company life, with bottomless portions of fixed-menu meals. A serving of French toast, sausage, biscuits and gravy overwhelmed me, but the museum next door showed how the loggers justified such a breakfast: it took a week to chop down a single redwood, with handsaws the length of a bus and wood hooks the size of anchors.
When settlers arrived here, they found the native Wiyot tribe living on the land. The Wiyot were moved south to the Mendocino county reservation, and an army garrison was placed at Fort Bragg to keep them there. In 1867 Fort Bragg was demilitarised, the reservation was sold to settlers and the Wiyot moved elsewhere. Then the timber industry moved in.
Newport, at the top of dramatic ocean bluffs, was the first town in the area. Some 1500 people lived around a sawmill that used a chute to send wood to ships waiting offshore. When Fort Bragg harbour opened, the mill moved there, and the people moved with it.
Newport is now the site of a luxury inn and the only visitors to the cliffs are whales. The 2000-acre estate is full of gigantic tree-stumps; a poignant contrast to the virgin forest of Prairie Creek. After being clear-cut, the forest was burnt, but fire helps redwoods to sprout, so although the modern forest is young, it supports an ecosystem of elk, cougars and black bears.
Fort Bragg was home to the last sawmill on the Redwood Coast, and its closure in 2002 marked the end of an era. But retirement gave the timber industry a new lease of life and the "skunk train" (so named for the smell of its gas engine) that once carried logs to the sawmill now carries tourists on round-trips to the forest.
Next to the railway station is the Guest House Museum, full of photos and artefacts from logging's golden era. The building itself is a masterpiece of ornate redwood carpentry.
Fort Bragg's shoreline has been redeveloped as a coastal walk, finishing at the Noyo Centre for Marine Science. In 2015 a killer whale washed up on a nearby beach, and the community came together to clean the skeleton. Mike DeRoos, who worked on the Natural History Museum's blue whale exhibit, is now preparing the skeleton for display. "I grew up building and renovating houses," he says. "Then I did biology at university. I was interning at a marine organisation in Vancouver and they asked me to put a whale skeleton together. It combined my love of biology with my love of working with my hands, and I've been doing it ever since."
Timber was a blue-collar industry but during the Sixties, hippies from San Francisco moved north to escape the city and they settled on the Redwood Coast. Richard Clements Jr was an architect who brought environmental philosophies to construction, and Timber Cove Inn, two hours south of Fort Bragg, was his masterpiece.
Made from local stone and redwood, it was for a time home to an artistic community and meditation centre before being turned into a hotel. A 93-foot obelisk, capped with an open hand, stands on the bluffs as a gift from the artist Beniamino Bufano. The sculpture survived the inn's redevelopment, and the Bufano Peace Statue Monument, as it is now known, helps the hotel retain a quirky vibe.
The hippies also spawned the "locavore" movement, reducing waste and improving nutrition by eating local food. Northern California has taken locavorism to heart, with two thirds of the state's oysters coming from Humboldt Bay. The wine is good too, with Sonoma and Mendocino counties producing pinot noir as fine as Napa Valley, but with much less fuss.
Fort Bragg's North Coast Brewing Company pioneered the craft beer philosophy, and their taproom hosts live jazz events alongside tasting sessions. Next door, Piaci Pub & Pizzeria has a rolling menu of the state's best beers, and a friendly crowd to go with it.
"There's 39 million people in California," says the barman, wearing a carefree smile and a Doors T-shirt. "But you wouldn't know it up here. Everyone has time to stop for a chat."
This beautiful part of California has seen people come and go with the fortunes of the sawmills. Today's visitors still come for the redwoods, but to walk beneath them, rather than cut them down.
Were it not for the foresight of those early environment supporters, the Redwood Coast would be just a memory, empty of both people and trees. But then were it not for the loggers, the settlers may not have stayed at all.
Trees by numbers
- 1 tree makes 10,000 picnic tables
- 7 days was the time it used to take to chop down a single redwood
- 10 people are able to wrap their arms at full stretch around a trunk
- 40 per cent of the moisture the trees need comes from sea fog378ft is the height of the tallest redwood
- 2200 years is the age of the oldest living redwood
- 240 million years is how long the redwoods have been around